Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Owner of Texel shipwreck gown identified

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Historians Helmer Helmers from the University of Amsterdam and Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University have identified the owner of the silk gown found in the Wadden Sea off the island of Texel in North Holland. It belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. There’s a portrait of her on Adel Foundation’s website that they were able to get from the collection of Floors Castle, seat of the current Duke of Roxburghe and Scotland’s largest inhabited castle. The photo leaves much to be desired, I’m afraid, but she’s wearing a dress that is somewhat reminiscent, albeit more elaborate, of the one wrecked at sea.

There were two key clues to the identity of the gown’s owner: the ship sank in the first half of the 17th century, and the leather book cover stamped with the coat of arms of King Charles I, the second Stuart king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As soon as Nadine Akkerman was apprised of the find, she remembered a letter she had transcribed in 2006 written by Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I and exiled Queen of Bohemia, to her old friend the diplomat and Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Roe. The letter, dated March 17th, 1642, tells how her sister-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria lost a baggage ship on the voyage from England to Holland. Her two ladies-in-waiting and their maids lost their clothes and accessories; the queen lost some silver vessels from her private chapel. The style and size of the gown strongly indicate it belonged to Jean Kerr.

The Countess of Roxburghe was born around 1585. She was descended through her maternal line from Robert II, the first Stuart King of Scotland, which made her a very high-ranking lady. She was Mistress of the Robes to the court of James I and Queen Anne, both of whom attended her marriage to Robert Kerr, 1st Lord Roxburghe, in 1614. Three years later she was dismissed from Court when her husband tried to finagle a political appointment without the knowledge of the Queen, but in 1631, with a new King, Charles I, and Queen, Henrietta Maria, on the throne, she made her way back to Court and was appointed governess to the infant Princess Mary. She was later made governess to Princess Elizabeth (born 1635) and Prince Henry (born 1640).

This voyage to Holland was an infamous one. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to deliver Charles and Henrietta Maria’s daughter Mary, then ten years old, to her 15-year-old husband William, son and heir of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Their wedding had taken place on May 2nd, 1641, in London. Reuniting the couple was a convenient pretext for Henrietta Maria to leave England and head for the continent where she could drum up support for the Royalist cause.

Her baggage was actually far more significant than her daughter. On February 23rd, 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria set sail from Falmouth with her daughter, her ladies-in-waiting, and the Crown Jewels. She also carried large quantities of silver and jewels that belonged to her and Charles personally, including those vessels from her chapel that were lost in the Texel wreck. The real reason for the trip to Holland was to sell or pawn these treasures, the most valuable of which were the patrimony of Britain, to fund a war against the British. Holland was the biggest market for the trade in high-end jewels and precious metals, so her daughter’s marriage to the heir of Orange was the perfect screen for her real intent.

Henrietta Maria arrived at The Hague on March 11th, 1642, where she was met by Elizabeth Stuart who had moved to The Hague after her exile. The loss of the baggage ship, while inconvenient as losing your luggage still is even now that it’s in airports instead of the bottom of the ocean, didn’t slow her down a bit. Mere days after her arrival, she was already trying to cut deals for the sale/hocking of the valuables that she’d kept with her.

This wasn’t exactly a stealth operation. In 1641 Parliament had officially protested that a plan of hers to take the waters at Spa, in what is now Belgium, for her health was in fact a blatant attempt to “convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace.” They were right, of course. Henrietta Maria was an active partner in Charles’ military and political ventures, often an instigator. She was a French Catholic — double trouble to English Protestants — and had an enormous influence on her husband. Her attempt to sell England’s Crown Jewels to fund a war against their (also British) enemies was the kind of machination that confirmed the worst suspicions about her and Charles.

The mission didn’t go well. Potential buyers and lenders were justifiably wary about the Crown Jewels. There was no clear title and the letter signed by Charles I saying he owned them that Henrietta deployed when people raised questions was hardly persuasive. With Parliament very publicly watching her every move, prepared to reclaim any pawned objects, buyers stayed away in droves. She wrote her husband in May that: “The money is not ready, for on your jewels, they will lend nothing. I am forced to pledge all my little ones, for the great ones, nothing can be had here….”

As for Jean Kerr, after she accompanied her young charge Princess Mary to The Hague, she turned around almost immediately, returning to her even younger charges, Elizabeth and Henry. She died just a year later, on October 7th, 1643.

Runestone lost for 250 years found in garden patio

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

A thousand-year-old runestone missing for 250 years has been found in the garden of a home in the village of Boddum in Thy, northern Jutland, Denmark. It all started in November of 2015 when farmer Ole Kappel called the Museum Thy to report he had a stone with some carved lines on it lying in his garden. He asked for an expert to examine it and tell him what it was. In March, Museum Thy archaeologist Charlotte Boje Andersen and National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer were amazed to find that the stone lying around in Kappel’s garden was the Ydby Runestone, carved between 970 and 1020 A.D. and last seen in 1767.

“It was one of the biggest moments in my time as an archaeologists and a completely one-of-a-kind discovery that highlights how important Thy and the western part of the Limfjord were in the Viking era,” [Andersen] said.

The Ydby Runestone was first documented in 1741 by bishop and antiquarian Erik Pontoppidan in the second volume of his collection of notable Danish inscriptions, Marmora Danica. Pontoppidan reported that the stone was moved from a place known as “Hellesager,” where it had stood upright over a triangular underground tomb surrounded by stones, to the village of Flarup. In 1767, Danish naturalist and illustrator Søren Abildgaard tracked down the runestone near Flarup. He made an accurate drawing of stone and the runes on three of its four sides and recorded its location in his travel diary.

After that, the stone disappeared. We don’t know when it was displaced, but landscape painter RH Kruse looked for it assiduously in 1841 and it was no longer there. None of the residents had any information about the runestone. A local farmer told Kruse that as far as he knew, the stone hadn’t been there for 50 years. A teacher named Nissen who was an avid documenter of runestones wrote to the National Museum in 1898 that he’d learned the stone had been used to build a railway bridge and was probably underwater.

Kruse had the wrong idea, thankfully. Ole Kappel acquired the stone 25 years ago when he bought a farm property and demolished the house. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to salvage what he could, including a pile of old stones from the foundation of the farmhouse. He took some of the stones home and used them in his landscaping. In fact, he told the thrilled experts, there more of the old farmhouse stones in his front yard patio. Andersen and Imer took a look at the pavers and saw two pieces that matched the shape of the runestone. Kappel’s sons Anders and Kristian pried up the two stones and more runes were revealed.

Imer was able to identify the stone because the extant runes matched the one recorded in Abildgaard’s drawings. Translated into English, it reads: “Thorgísl and Leifi’s sons placed/ at this place/ the stone in memory of Leifi.” Based on the parts that are missing, Imer thinks the stone, which was about six feet high and three feet wide when intact, was broken into about eight sections. All together, the rediscovered pieces form about half of the original runestone.

Andersen has checked the records and she thinks the stone was swiped in the 1820s when the farm Kappel bought was built. The farm was just a few hundred meters from the runestone’s last known location. The owner appears to have helped himself to the runestone and used it as raw material to build the foundations of his farmhouse. The Kappels plan to keep looking for the other missing pieces.

The recovered stones went on display at Heltborg Museum for a month so residents of Thy could see their long-lost cultural patrimony. The stone is now in the National Museum of Denmark where experts will assess whether it should be declared treasure trove. (It should be and will be.)

Incredible 17th c. silk gown found in shipwreck

Friday, April 15th, 2016

There are hundreds of shipwrecks buried under the sands of the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel off the coast of North Holland. A natural barrier between the North Sea and Wadden Sea, Texel was an important center of maritime trade. Ships anchored in the Texel roadstead, a sheltered area in the lee of the island, waiting for propitious winds, waiting out bad weather or taking on crew and cargo, only to be wrecked in sudden unexpected storms. Many wrecks are protected by the sand, but as currents shift they can be exposed to the more damaging elements of sea. Divers from the Texel Diving Club keep an eye on the condition of wrecks and recover artifacts that have been unburied and are in danger of destruction.

In August of 2014, divers discovered that artifacts from one known wreck, a well-armed merchant ship buried since it sank in the 17th century, had been exposed. They didn’t know what the objects were at first. It was just a bundle in the sand. It was only when the brought the bundle to the surface that they realized they’d recovered antique textiles. The find was not announced to protect the site from interlopers while conservators examined and stabilized the finds.

Conservators discovered that the bundle included a unique survival in exceptional condition: a silk damask gown of such high quality that it must have belonged to a noblewoman of very high rank, perhaps even royalty. Buried under the seabed for 400 years or so, the delicate silk was spared the ravages of both oxygen and animals. The dress has a bodice with loose-fitting sleeves and sleeve caps and a full pleated skirt open in the front. The neck has an upright collar. The style is of a type seen in paintings from the early 17th century.

The dress is just one element of an extensive wardrobe that includes a jacket, silk knee socks and silk bodices woven with gold and silver thread. All of these pieces are the same size, so archaeologists believe the clothes belonged to one full-figured woman. Only the gown shows signs of significant wear, which suggests it was intended for everyday use, as does the lack of rich silver and gold embroidery seen in the bodices.

The dress has been examined by experts from the Rijksmuseum, the University of Amsterdam and the State Service for Cultural Heritage (RCE), all of whom agree that it is one of the important textile finds ever made in Europe. Professor Emmy de Groot of the University of Amsterdam called it “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

Other artifacts were recovered from the wreck site. There’s Italian pottery, a silver gilt vessel, a red velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread that contained a two-sided lice comb made of cow horn, pomanders (openwork spheres that held sweet-smelling flowers or herbs for elegant people to sniff when the environment was particularly rank), and a number of leather book covers in different sizes, some with locks. One of them is stamped in gold with the coat of arms of King Charles I, which suggests at least part of the cargo was Stuart property. Perhaps the lady with the very fine wardrobe was a member of the Stuart family.

In addition to the passenger belongings, the ship’s cargo was remarkably varied. In addition to the wardrobe and expensive personal belongings, the ship was carrying boxwood — a dense, fine-grained wood widely used for musical instruments, chess sets and decorative carving — mastic from the Greek island of Chios, crates archaeologists believe held frankincense or myrrh, tobacco and aniseed. These objects found at the same time in the same context make the find a priceless historical time capsule that sheds new light on trade, politics and how people lived and worked on ships in the 17th century.

The gown and other treasures are now on display at the Kaap Skil Museum on Texel. The finds belong to the Province of North Holland. After the month-long exhibition ends on May 16th, the artifacts from the wreck will be further studied and conserved at North Holland’s Huis van Hilde archaeology center. Once the research is complete, the Kaap Skil Museum will display the finds in a permanent exhibition.

UPDATE: The likely owner of the gown has been identified.

Viking treasure pokes finder in Denmark

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

Søren Bagge had only been metal detecting for a couple of months in August of 2015. With no particular expertise, he picked a field near Lille Karleby on the Hornsherred peninsula of Zealand, Denmark, to scan just because he happened to have grown up nearby and so could easily stop at home for coffee breaks. The first couple of days he found a few Arabic silver coins. The next signal from his metal detector was weak too, but when he dug into the top soil, he found a small silver cup. He’d felt something pointy stabbing him as he was digging up the cup, so he suspected there was more to be found in the spot and rushed to alert the Roskilde Museum.

It was the weekend, though, and nobody was around to pursue his lead. Bagge put the cup back where he found it and reburied it to keep it safe until Monday. On Monday Roskilde Museum archaeologists did a small excavation on the spot. About a foot below the surface they encountered multiple artifacts and realized they had a Viking hoard on their hands. They removed the entire lot in a soil block to excavate it with careful deliberation in laboratory conditions.


Before excavating the soil block, archaeologists took it to Roskilde Hospital where it was CT scanned in the Radiology unit. The scan showed there were a great many artifacts encased in that soil block. It gave archaeologists a blueprint of how to proceed. There is video of the block’s arrival at the hospital and the scan. This video is in Danish, but you don’t have to understand what they’re saying to appreciate the excitement of the CT reveal.

The excavation revealed an exceptional treasure of 392 pieces. The silver cup Bagge found was one of two. There were 53 gilt bronze and silver pendants, more than 300 beads made of glass, amber, rock crystal and silver, 18 Arabic and Western European coins, a braided silver chain, a bracelet or arm ring with five smaller rings attached, elaborately decorated pieces from France, Eastern Europe and Ireland or Scotland. Some of the objects of Scandinavian manufacture were already antiques when they were buried in the second half of the 10th century.

I hesitate to play favorites with so many beautiful and important pieces, but the large ball penannular brooch, also known as a thistle brooch, is breathtaking. Penannular brooches were relatively common in the Viking era, but nothing like this one has been found in Denmark before. It’s Irish or Scottish and was made in the 10th century. It’s called a thistle brooch because it is decorated with three spheres in the shaving brush shape of the thistle bud. The brooch is large — 10 inches long — with a wicked long pin. It was that pin which poked at Søren Bagge when he was digging.

These large brooches were worn by elite men, high-ranking clerics and royal family members, with the pin facing upwards. There was a law on the books in Scotland that provided compensation for people who were accidentally stuck by long-pins. In a little historical irony, the reason the thistle is the national emblem of Scotland is that, according to legend, a barefoot Norse invader stepped on a thistle during an attempted nighttime raid on a Scottish army encampment. His cries of pain warned the Scots that the Vikings were coming and Scottish forces successfully repulsed the attack.

Another impressive import/pillaged piece in the hoard is a trefoil strap mount with acanthus decoration. This was a Frankish design which would later be copied in Scandinavia, only the Norse usually put stylized animal designs or geometric shapes inside the three leaves rather than the French acanthus motif. The French used trefoils as fittings on a sword strap. The Vikings converted them into a jewelry — belt buckles, brooches — and they’re usually discovered in women’s graves where there are no swords or any other weapons, for that matter. The Frankish style dates the piece to between the late 8th century and the 10th century.

Seven hollow silver beads in the hoard are of both Scandinavian and Slavic origin. The six largest, most elaborate beads decorated with rich filigree and showing the remains of gilding were probably manufactured in Poland or West Russia in the 9th or 10th century. They are very rare finds in Scandinavia. The seventh bead, on the other hand, is rounder with a silver spiral applique’ that is more typical of Scandinavian beads.

The bracelet or arm-ring with the rings attached is certainly a Scandinavian piece. The four smaller rings are closed with a knot, and the fifth and smallest ring is threaded through a heavy silver bead. The rings would have clinked together and chimed when the wearer moved her arm. Archaeologists think the design might represent Odin’s dwarf-forged gold ring, Draupnir (“the dripper” in Old Norse), which “dripped” eight rings of equal weight to the original every ninth night. In Norse mythology, it’s a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

As for the silver cup that started all of this, it and its companion are different. One is decorated with triangle designs close to the lip. One is plain. The decorated one is bigger and heavier than the plain one. Both were likely drinking goblets for the upper echelons of Norse society. Other Viking hoards also include silver cups, one larger and more ornamented than the other. Archaeologists think the uneven sets may have been used during important banquets or festivals where the honored guest would get to use the fancier cup and the host would take the plainer one. The style of the cups indicate they were made between 700 and 1000, but since the treasure was buried up to 50 or so years before the latter date, we can shave a few years off of that broad estimate.

The treasure went on display at the Roskilde Museum in December and is now in the National Museum for further study.

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

Tiny Arabic chess piece found in museum dig

Saturday, April 9th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the back yard of the Wallingford Museum on High Street in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, have unearthed a tiny medieval chess piece. At first museum curator thought it was a figurine of a cat, but once it was cleaned, they recognized the artifact as an Arabic chess piece carved from the tip of an antler.

[Curator Judy Dewey] said: [...] “It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7mm high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country.

“The chess piece was made from the tip of an antler in the 12th or 13th century and is highly decorated with traditional roundels – most other such pieces are at least double the size.

This is a bishop so the other pieces in the set must have been really tiny – it may have been part of a travelling set.”

The museum’s main building was once Wallingford Priory, a Benedictine abbey that was suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey and of which only the foundations remain today, all of them underground. Wolsey secured a papal bull ordering the dissolution of Wallingford and 30 other small monasteries deemed to be rife with corruption. Funds raised from the dissolution would go to one of Wolsey’s pet projects: the construction of Cardinal College at the University of Oxford. The priory was surrendered in 1525 to notary John Allen, as witnessed by Thomas Cromwell, then Wolsey’s right hand man. It took three more years before the priory was finally suppressed for good. On July 6th, 1528, the monastery and its lands were formally transferred from the crown to Cardinal Wolsey for the construction of his college at Oxford.

Before the demise of the abbey, visitors to the castle of Wallingford were sometimes housed in the priory. Chess was deemed a game for the nobility and educated classes. Any one of those visitors might have owned a portable set, or the monks themselves may have played.

Chess was introduced to Europe from Persia by the Islamic Arabian empire, likely through Spain. The Norman French brought it with them to England after the Conquest in the 11th century. Within a hundred years the original Arabic designs and names of the pieces were altered to forms more recognizable to the elite players of northern Europe. The Vizir became the Queen, the Fars (horse) became the Knight and the Al-Fil, the war elephant, became the Bishop. The look of the pieces shifted from the non-figural representation of the Islamic tradition to the people and characters we know today.

The piece discovered at Wallingford is a war elephant, aka the future Bishop. The round protrusions represent tusks. To Christian European eyes those bumps were reminiscent of a bishop’s mitre, which is how the war elephant became a high-ranking clergyman. The piece likely dates to before the mid-12th century when the figural designs set in, increasing the game’s appeal and popularity across Christendom.

The chess piece is now on display at the Wallingford Museum. Digging is scheduled to resume this July, and archaeologists are crossing their fingers and toes that they might find more pieces from the set. It’s a long shot, however.

Met conservators repair della Robbia that fell from wall

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Late on the night of June 30th or early in the morning of July 1st, 2008, a blue-and-white glazed terracotta relief of Saint Michael the Archangel by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell from its metal wall mounts high on a wall above a doorway and crashed to the ground. A security guard found the lunette the next morning on its back on the stone floor, broken into many pieces. The gallery was closed and conservators picked up the pieces, some large — Michael’s head was undamaged — and some as small as fingernails. The pieces were bagged and numbered and removed to the museum’s Department of Objects Conservation later that day.

The Met hasn’t had the greatest luck with the mounting of their Renaissance masterpieces. At least they were able to puzzle out this jigsaw in seven years. The fall of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam in 2002 was even more catastrophic; it took 12 years to put all of his pieces back together. The museum notes all wall-mounted sculpture was reviewed after the accident, and new systems — comprehensive and regular inspections, formal approval of all mounts — were put in place to prevent something like this happening again.

Andrea della Robbia’s uncle Luca (1400-1482), who in his youth had an illustrious career a sculptor in bronze and marble, invented the blue and white tin-based glazes that made terracotta reliefs exceptionally durable, easy to clean and impervious to the vagaries of the weather. The glazed earthenware pieces were significantly less expensive than marble or bronze, and since they looked so good and needed so little care, soon della Robbia reliefs were in great demand. Luca’s clients included some of the most important people and institutions in Florence — Piero de’ Medici, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the Duomo — and elsewhere.

Andrea, who had learned the secret glaze recipe as his uncle’s pupil, took over operations of the della Robbia workshop on Via Guelfa in Florence in the late 1460s or early 1470s. He picked up where his uncle left off, executing high-end commissions for reliefs of increasing size and architectural importance from major private clients and churches all over northern Italy. Saint Michael the Archangel was made around 1475 for the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Faenza, a town outside Ravenna known for its majolica pottery. In fact, the town is literally synonymous with majolica tin-glazed earthenware which became known as faience after Faenza. The relief was installed above the church door and remained there until 1798 when the church was demolished and Saint Michael the Archangel sold.

The Met acquired the piece in 1960 at an auction of the estate of American industrialist and diplomat Myron C. Taylor for $40,000 (about $320,000 today). The museum has one of the most important collections of della Robbia works in the United States, including an exquisite Virgin and Child. Saint Michael, however, is probably the most important of all.

There was an upside to the crash. Conservators were able to study the relief thoroughly before they went about reassembling the pieces. They found the artist’s finger and tool marks which shed new light on della Robbia’s production process. The workshop made quality artworks for refined and wealthy clients, but it also had to crank out new pieces at a canter to keep up with demand. Conservators found evidence of this in Saint Michael’s robe. It was made separately and then attached to the lunette, but the toga cracked during firing. Instead of starting over again — a time-consuming and expensive approach — they stuck it back together. It was going above a door, after all, and nobody was going to be at eye-level to see the tiny fissure lines.

The sculpture was originally made in 12 interlocking pieces. While conservators Wendy Walker and Janis Mandrus reassembled the broken pieces and filled in the areas of paint loss, conservation preparator Fred Sager developed a custom mount that secured each of the 12 sections individually to an aluminum backing plate. This makes it safer while still allowing visitors to enjoy the entire composed piece.

The most challenging part of the restoration, Ms. Walker said, was the in-painting between repaired cracks — trying to recreate the signature cobalt della Robbia blue that the critic Walter Pater described as being like “fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets.”

“In the morning it would look good,” she said of the modern paint, “and by noon, in a different light, you’d see and go, ‘No!’ and just want to pull your hair out.”

But another lesson the accident taught, in the end, was how durable della Robbias were made to be, despite their humble, seemingly fragile clay origins. St. Michael’s head, for example, was completely unharmed after its violent detachment the night of the fall.

“For hundreds of years, this was outside, in the elements, protected by its glaze,” Mr. Bell said. “And the amazing thing about these ceramics is that the surface still looks pretty much the same as the day it came out of the kiln.”

The relief is now back in the Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries, but this time it’s been mounted about at eye level to allow visitors to get a proper look at della Robbia’s amazing details, like the facial expressions and the little babies on the scale. They’re actually souls, not babies, weighed on the scales of justice and mercy. The happy light-weight one is saved for heaven; the facepalming heavy one is doomed to hell.

Roman mosaic bonanza at the Getty

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has an exceptional collection of Roman floor mosaics from the Imperial era. Some of them have been on display consistently, but others will be seen by the public for the first time in Roman Mosaics Across the Empire, a new exhibition that opened on Wednesday at the Getty Villa. It features mosaics from provinces of the Roman Empire all over the Mediterranean — Italy, France, North Africa, Syria — done in different styles with different themes.

There’s bear hunt from Baiae, outside of Naples, a head of Medusa surrounded by a glorious optical illusion-inducing geometrical design from Rome, an Orpheus surrounded by animals from Saint-Romain-en-Gal, France, a hare and two birds with geometric border panels from Antioch, Syria, a dramatic lion attacking an onager from Hadrumentum, modern-day Sousse, Tunisia. These are top quality artworks which adorned the homes of the very wealthy, public baths, even early Christian churches.

The show also features a close look at the Getty Conservation Institute’s work conserving the mosaics from the Imperial Roman heyday of Bulla Regia in Tunisia, North Africa. Known for its unique villas with subterranean floors — smart design in the heat of Tunisia — Bulla Regia had the greatest numbers of senators in Roman North Africa. It was an important city and its exquisite art and architecture testify to that importance. The GCI is working with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia and the World Monuments Fund to fully conserve one of the most important private residences in the city, the House of the Hunt, and to devise a plan for the long-term conservation and maintenance of the 400 mosaics that have already been unearthed at Bulla Regia over the past hundred years. Some of the works will be restored for display; others will be reburied. The idea is to make Bulla Regia a template for in situ conservation that can be applied to mosaics elsewhere in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Highlights of the site’s breathtaking beauty can be seen in this video about the project:

The focus on best practices of situ conservation is in marked contrast to the Getty’s past see-no-evil acquisition policy evinced in more than one of the mosaics on display in this exhibition. The Getty bought 23 panels of the Bear Hunt in 1972 from a Switzerland-based antiques dealer (surprise!) who told them only that it had been in an Italian collection. It was almost certainly illegally exported, but the museum looked the other way as it so often did. Recently Getty researchers attempted to trace the ownership history and there’s a big gap between 1929 and 1972. The last known owner in 1929 was refused an export license because there were doubts as to whether he actually had legal title to the mosaic. Somewhere in those four decades, probably closer to 1972 than 1929, the mosaic was trafficked to Zurich and thence to the Getty. Four other panels from the original mosaic were eventually found by the Italian police and are now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

The Getty is offering a number of lectures related to the exhibition. The Handling Session looks particularly compelling.

How were mosaics created from pieces of stone and glass? Learn how these intricate architectural decorations were made in this multisensory handling session. Touch tools and materials similar to those used by ancient mosaicists, including tesserae, slaked lime, marble dust, and nippers.

Lucky Angelenos can take an early lunch and handle tesserae every Thursday and Friday from 11:00 AM-12:00 PM through September 9th. The exhibition runs until September 12th, 2016. For those of us who won’t be able to see the mosaics live, the Getty has made a companion catalogue to the exhibition available free online: Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Gods and mortals from ancient Dion in New York

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Nestled in the northern foothills of Mount Olympus, the ancient town of Dion was perfectly situated for sacrifices to the gods. It was a lot easier to carry animals to the base of the mountain than to climb its nearly 10,000-foot heights. The first known altar to Zeus Olympios was built in Dion in the 10th century B.C.

The small town grew into a prominent city under the Macedonians who revered it as the center of their religion. In the late 5th century B.C., Macedonian King Archelaus I founded the Olympian Games there, a yearly festival of the arts and athletic contents in honor of Olympian Zeus and his daughters the Muses. Top athletes and artists flocked to the festival from all over Greece. The kings of Macedon made sacrifices at the altar to ring in every new year (the end of September in the Macedonian calendar), celebrated their military victories and invoked the protection and support of Olympian Zeus before setting out on new adventures. Philip II of Macedon celebrated his successful siege and destruction of Olynthos in 348 B.C. at Dion. His son Alexander the Great sacrificed to the gods there before taking his conquering armies East. He also imported the worship of Isis from Egypt to Dion.

The strong association with Alexander the Great served Dion well under the Roman emperors. Octavian founded a colony there in 31 B.C., and later emperors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries lent it their support. In the waning days of the empire, Dion was still prominent as the seat of a bishopric. Bishops of Dion took part in important church synods (Serdike in 343 A.D. and Ephesos in 431 A.D.), but at the end of the 5th century the city fell to the armies of Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great and it never recovered. It gradually lost importance and population due to a series of earthquakes and floods from the river Vaphyras. By the 10th century it was an abandoned ruin.

The ruins of Dion were identified as the ancient sacred city of the Macedonians in 1806, but organized excavations didn’t begin until 1928. There was a 30-year lapse in archaeological exploration between 1931 and 1960. Since 1973, Dr. Dimitrios Pandermalis has led excavations at the site, returning every summer with a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers from the modern village to brave the oppressive heat and humidity. They have expanded the excavation area considerably to include the ancient sanctuaries, graveyards, tumulus burials and the town center. Spared development, reconstruction and the potentially destructive fumbling of early archaeologists, Dion has proved an archaeological treasure trove. Thanks to its wetlands environment at the base of the mountain between two rivers, Dion’s remains have been well preserved by water and mud layers.

All that mud and water is no picnic for the archaeological team to have to dig through, but it’s been worth it. Excavators have unearthed the remains of sanctuaries dedicated to Olympian Zeus, Zeus Hypsistos, Demeter, Isis and Asclepius. There’s a Hellenistic theater, a Great Baths complex, a partially preserved 2nd century A.D. Roman theater, a Greek and Roman wall, a 5th century Christian basilica and several Roman-era villas, most notably the Villa of Dionysus discovered in 1987.

The Villa of Dionysus was built in the second half of the 2nd century as a complex with an elegant home, a shrine to Dionysus, a bathhouse, a library and storefronts. Archaeologists discovered a great many ancient artworks: sculptures, decorative elements from expensive furniture, and mosaics of exceptional quality. Among the most prized sculptures is a group of four seated men representing Epicurean philosophers, three students and one teacher identifiable by his bearded adulthood and the open scroll he holds. The heads of the students were recarved in the 3rd century AD to give them portrait features, possibly to make them look like members of the family who lived in the house at the time. Other artworks found in the house include a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Agrippina the Elder, mother of Nero, and a glorious 100 square meter floor mosaic in the banquet hall depicting the Epiphany of Dionysus.

The mosaic is one of the finest of its kind and is believed to be a copy of a lost Hellenistic painting. The villa being in ruins, there has been great concern about preserving the mosaic. The authorities built a custom addition to the museum to house the mosaic in ideal conservation conditions, but money was hard to come by. That changed last year when the Onassis Foundation funded the removal of the mosaic from the villa to the new building. Here’s a behind the scenes view of the detachment, transportation and conservation of the Epiphany of Dionysus mosaic:

Now Dion is paying the Onassis Foundation back in the most wonderful way: by loaning the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City more than 90 artifacts — mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, medical implements, terracotta vessels, glassware — dating from the 10th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. Many of these pieces are in the US for the first time, and they are absolutely stunning. There’s the central panel of the Dionysus mosaic and several of the masques around it, the sculptures of the four philosophers, that beautiful portrait of Agrippina, an Iron Age spiral brooch with textile fragments still attached to it, statues and stele of the gods. There are utilitarian artifacts as well, including a copper oil lamp decorated with the head of a panther and a 1st century B.C. copper speculum, which looks remarkably similar to the modern version.

The Gods and Mortals at Olympus exhibition opened March 24th and runs through June 18th. They’ve really gone all out to put together a spectacular and content-rich show with cross-generational appeal. You can amble through the artifacts of Dion conversing with philosopher Simon Critchley, or lure your museum-resistant friends to the Museum Hacks series “for people who don’t like museums.” There’s even a videogame where children (and grown-ups!) can become the archaeologist excavating Dion. Entrance to the exhibition is free.


Torlonia collection to see the light after 40 years in the basement

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

One of the most important private collections of ancient sculpture in the world hasn’t been on display in four decades. In fact, it really hasn’t been on public display since the 19th century. The Torlonia family’s collection of antiquities, 620 world-class Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues and sarcophagi, has been favorably compared without hyperbole to the ancient sculpture collections of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, and the Italian government has tried for years to craft an agreement with the family that would allow these unique treasures to be seen by the public. On Tuesday, March 15th, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the long-sought agreement has been reached and about 60-90 of the most important pieces in the Torlonia collection will go on display in 2017. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but the likely venue will be the Palazzo Caffarelli Clementino on the Capitoline Hill.

The Torlonia family are new, by Roman standards. The founder was Marino Torlonia, born Marin Tourlonias in Auvergne, France, in 1725. He moved to Rome and became the manservant of powerful Neopolitan cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d’Aragona, best remembered today for having employed Giacomo Casanova in 1744 only to dismiss him when he was discovered hiding a teenaged runaway in the cardinal’s residence on the Piazza di Spagna. Acquaviva died in 1747, leaving Marino Torlonia an inheritance which he used to set himself up as a textile merchant.

The business was successful and Marino parlayed some of his income into a small lending concern. When he helped Pope Pius VI with some pesky financial matters, he was granted the title of duke. It was his son Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia who took both businesses and ran with them. He made savvy deals with the French occupiers under Napoleon and when the French troops left after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Giovanni was flush with cash, cash the old noble families distinctly lacked. The Banco Marino Torlonia was delighted to loan them money with their estates and furnishings as collateral.

Pope Pius VII granted Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia a princely title in 1814, the first of many. Just two generations removed from Marin Tourlonias, the Torlonia family was one of the richest in Rome, as ennobled as it could be and, thanks to advantageous marriages, related to some of the greatest noble houses of the city — the Colonna, Orsini and Borghese. When those loans went into default, the Torlonia family accumulated lands and artworks by the cartload, including pieces from the Orisini, Cesarini and Caetani-Ruspoli families and a prized 17th century collection of ancient sculptures from the Giustiniani family.

Not that they needed the loan collateral to make out like bandits. After the upheaval of the Napoleonic period, many noble families were compelled to sell their properties and private collections. The great collection of dedicated antiquarian Cardinal Alessandro Albani was sold along with his Roman palace, Villa Albani, to the Chigi family who in turn sold it to the Torlonia. Giovanni also bought more than a thousands pieces from the estate of sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, among which were important sculptures Cavaceppi had acquired from the collections of the Savelli, Cesi and Pio da Carpi families.

Their extensive property holdings proved invaluable sources of ancient statuary as well. Draining swamps and developing lands, the Torlonia unearthed antiquities hand over fist, particularly from the man-made Roman harbour of Portus, the town of Fiumicino where Leonardo da Vinci Airport now stands, and the ancient Etruscan cities of Vulci and Cerveteri

In 1859, Giovanni’s son Alessandro founded a private museum in one of their palaces on the Via della Lungara. The sculptures, including about a hundred Roman portrait busts from the late Republican and Imperial period so prized many scholars consider them superior to the busts in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, were installed in the 77 rooms of the palace. Already by the 1870s the public was not allowed inside the museum. I can’t confirm whether they ever were, for that matter. Alessandro Torlonia granted access only to his aristocratic friends and occasionally to experts. The collection was catalogued repeatedly in the 1870s and 1880s. Some of the catalogues were illustrated with photographs, among the first in Italy to be printed with pictures instead of drawings. (here’s a text-only example from 1881)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the collection was gradually packed up and stored, perhaps in other Torlonia properties, perhaps in the basement of the old museum. Another Alessandro Torlonia, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, got permission from the government to repair the roof, but those repairs proved to be a smokescreen for an illegal subdivision of the palace into 90 tiny apartments. A 1979 judgement from Italy’s supreme court of appeals found that the sculptures had been stored in “narrow, insufficient, dangerous spaces [...] removed from the museum [...] crammed together in unbelievable fashion, leaned against each other without care for consistency or history.” The court ruled that the private owner should pay a fine to the state equal to the value lost or diminished by this dire, careless treatment of cultural patrimony. That ruling was never enforced.

With tension between the state and the family, the past 40 years have seen many long negotiations go nowhere. Finally the parties have managed to come together, although the vast majority of the Torlonia sculptures will not be on display, at least not right away. I hope this is just a first step. None of these works should be gathering dust in basements.

The history of this collection, how it was amassed from acquisitions, debt collections and excavations on Torlonia properties, may be a central theme of the first exhibition. It’s particularly relevant to the Torlonia collection as opposed to some of the older ones built gradually by noble families over the course of centuries. The way entire collections were absorbed by the Torlonia makes for a unique perspective into the history of antiquities collection in Rome, with built-in organizational divisions, like, for instance, the pieces from the Cavaceppi collection in one section, the pieces from the Giustiniani collection in another. The sculptures unearthed on Torlonia estates could be in another section.

Again, it’s still in the early stages, but the Ministry is hoping to make this a traveling exhibition. After the Roman show, the treasures of the Torlonia collection will go to top museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually a permanent place will be found for it back home in Rome.

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